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House Lawmakers Advance Historic Bill To Form Reparations Commission

Democratic Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is the lead sponsor of H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations for slavery.
Chip Somodevilla
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Democratic Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is the lead sponsor of H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations for slavery.

Updated April 15, 2021 at 1:43 AM ET

A House committee has voted to move forward with a bill that would establish a commission to develop proposals to help repair the lasting effects of slavery. The vote came nearly three decades after the bill was was first introduced.

Fresh debate over the issue of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people comes amid a national reckoning over race and justice.

The House Judiciary Committee took up the bill on Wednesday evening. The vote was the first time the committee has acted on the legislation since former Democratic Rep. John Conyers initially introduced it in 1989. This year, the legislation has the support of more than 170 Democratic co-sponsors and key congressional leaders.

The bill now moves to a full House vote. Should it pass, it would then face a vote with the evenly divided Senate.

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the lead sponsor of the bill, H.R. 40, has said that bringing it to a vote on the House floor would be "cleansing" for the country, and she challenged Republicans who argued that such a commission was unnecessary.

"I ask my friends on the other side of the aisle, do not cancel us tonight. Do not ignore the pain, the history and the reasonableness of this commission," Jackson Lee said on Wednesday.

The bill would create a 13-member commission that would study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination, hold hearings and recommend "appropriate remedies" to Congress. That commission would also consider what form a national apology could take for the harm caused by slavery.

Lawmakers who support the legislation say that today's descendants of slaves continue to suffer from the lingering legacy of slavery and persistent racial inequities.

"Understanding that the compounding nature of racism has created a dynamic where Black people today must not only grapple with living in a country built on our sustained oppression, but also observe the modern manifestations in our daily lives," said New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who cited the racial wealth gap as well as COVID-19 as examples.

Among supporters of reparations for slavery, there is some disagreement about what reparations might ultimately look like. Some have pushed for direct monetary payments to descendants of slaves. Others have said that there are different proposals that may be more realistic and could be put into law.

Some proponents of H.R. 40 acknowledge that it would be challenging to get it passed in the Senate, given the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster and Democrats' narrow majority. The bill faces Republican pushback in both chambers.

Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, who is Black, said Wednesday that while "slavery was and still is an evil," the issue of reparations is divisive and "speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for white people to show up and help us, and it's a falsehood."

In 2019, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejected the reparations idea after the House held a hearing on the issue. He argued that it would be "hard to figure out whom to compensate."

"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea," McConnell said then.

Asked about the prospects for passage in the Senate, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, the chair of a House Judiciary subcommittee, said Monday that "the Senate is not a good place to be with this legislation, or with any legislation that's progressive and advances interests of African Americans, in particular."

"You've got to have 10 Republicans right now," he added, "and there are not that many of them that are going to quit and not run again, and going to have a come to Jesus moment."

President Biden met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House on Tuesday, and reparations was one of the topics discussed, according to lawmakers who participated in that meeting.

Texas' Jackson Lee told reporters that "we have heard from not only the president, but the White House and his team, that he is committed to this concept."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.